This month brought children (including mine) back to school, and this week brought a chill in the air that tells us change is around the corner. It also brought the news that my father had died.
Over the past few months, my sister, my father’s ex-wives (including my mother), and other relatives had tried to find him to no avail. This week, my uncle received a call from the public trustee to say that, at 81 years of age, my father died completely alone and penniless in a convalescent home.
The first few days marked a conscious decision on my part to push my feelings down and focus on work. I probably will have little grasp of the intensity and type of feelings that will surround the death of my father until perhaps my own death nears.
My father was a complicated man but one who seemed equipped with every natural advantage: He was well over six feet tall, handsome, articulate, a powerful thinker, fiercely competitive, and strong in faith.
So strong was his faith, in fact, that at the age of 17, he went into the Jesuit order to become a priest. After becoming a Jesuit, he served for the next 17 years. Finally, he left the priesthood at 34 a changed man.
From all told by my grandmother, he entered a happy, loving boy and came out an angry, resentful man due to the trauma he experienced within the Church.
He was unable to overcome a burdensome sense of resentment caused by the injustices he saw in life. He took this resentment out on many. At first, it was my mother. Later it was me, my sister, and then others.
My father impacted me more than any person in my life. Though I was often afraid of him, especially when he drank or when I disagreed with him, he could show me such kindness, tenderness, and compassion.
He was, in fact, very physically affectionate and taught me that it was alright for me, as a man, to show and share my feelings. One of my fondest memories is of visiting him in Philadelphia. He would rub my back and sing me to sleep. Truly, he was a man of dichotomies.
As I’m writing this I’m tearing up – God, I loved and hated him. I am trying to process this and perhaps putting words to paper will serve in doing so.
Maybe I could let you know how we became estranged. Throughout my childhood, I became afraid of my father, so much so that I began lifting weights and learning martial arts to protect myself.
As a teenager, I was used to his abuse, though one incident caused the rift between my father and me to grow into a chasm.
I had lived my entire life being compared to my father: my looks, intelligence, my height. While others saw them as a positive, I saw them as traits associated with my father and I always saw them as negative. My fear? That I would become him. As a result, I had never stood up for myself to him as he was much larger – and larger than life – than I would ever be.
The catalyst for my standing up and ultimately separating from him happened when he attacked my sister. It was then that I stood up for her and myself – and after that day, I would never see him again, except for two times.
Many families grow apart due to more or less dramatic circumstances and can easily stay separated until the end. This disconnection and inability to reconnect will continue to happen as our population ages.
How strange is it that unbeknownst to each other, my sister, my mother, my stepmother, my cousin, my aunt, and my uncles and I were all trying but unable to contact him?
He was in the public trustee system due to his dementia, something we all will undoubtedly be seeing more of as our population ages. Yet there is no centralized system that keeps track of folks with dementia like my father, connecting them to their families.
After speaking to countless professionals working with seniors, they say that far too often, families lose track of their loved ones – as my family had. Across this country, people like my father’s social worker and chaplain have been trying to do something for some time to ensure that our seniors do not die alone, as my father had.
As many of us do, I try to find meaning and purpose in everything I do. This mindset, unfortunately (or fortunately) necessitates that I meditate some nights simply to fall asleep.
It was in this mindset that I called the member of parliament for my father’s riding in Alberta to see if there is an opportunity to do something for others who are in this place. To my surprise, a wonderful conversation ensued where, serendipitously, I discovered that my father’s MP is a doctor who has been working to improve the healthcare system.
My father was estranged from us because of his actions, but the government should make it easy for citizens to find their loved ones if they are accessing government services. This can only happen if we connect the different voices who serve our aging population.
It is with this that I encourage you to reach out to your to your faith group, to your local seniors’ organization, to your friends, to your family, and to your member of parliament, so that we may all join a chorus to ensure another senior does not spend his last days alone and unloved.